The persecution of Pastor Omot Agwa in Ethiopia

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Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas / WG Film

On September 7, 2015, the Ethiopian authorities charged Pastor Omot Agwa under its draconian counterterrorism law, having already detained him for nearly six months. Omot, of the evangelical Mekane Yesus church in Ethiopia’s Gambella region, was an interpreter and facilitator for the World Bank Inspection Panel when the Panel  visited in February 2014 to investigate a complaint by former Gambella residents alleging widespread forced displacement and other serious human rights violations connected to the World Bank’s Protection of Basic Services (PBS) program. The charge sheet refers to a food security workshop, which was organized by a food security group and two international organizations, as a “terrorist group meeting.”

Omot was arrested on March 15 with six others while en route to the workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. Three were released without charge on April 24, 2015 and a fourth on June 26, 2015. The authorities charged the two others, Ashinie Astin and Jamal Oumar Hojele, also under the counterterrorism law.

The World Bank’s Protection of Basic Services (PBS) program funded block grants to regional governments, including paying salaries of government officials. The former residents alleged that the program was harming them by contributing to the government’s abusive “villagization” program. The program forcibly evicted indigenous and other marginalized peoples from their traditional lands and relocated them to new villages. In its report to the World Bank board of directors, which was leaked to the media in December 2014, the Inspection Panel concluded that the Bank had violated some of its own policies in Ethiopia.

In February 2015, the World Bank board considered the Inspection Panel’s recommendations. Shortly thereafter, Omot reported that he was under increasing pressure from Ethiopian security personnel. While the Inspection Panel had not disclosed Omot’s identity in its report, it included a photograph of him with other community members, which was removed from subsequent versions. The week before his arrest, several people told Omot that a well-known federal security official from Gambella was looking for him.

Several days after Omot’s arrest, a witness saw four armed federal police officers and four plainclothes security officials take Omot, in chains, to his house in Addis Ababa where they removed computers, cameras, and other documents. The seizure of Omot’s computers and other materials raises concerns about the security of other Gambella community members the Inspection Panel interviewed. Given the severe restrictions on human rights investigation and reporting in Ethiopia, it is virtually impossible for rights groups to learn about reprisals in the villages the Inspection Panel visited.

The food security workshop in Nairobi was organized by Bread for All, with the support of the Anywaa Survival Organisation (ASO) and GRAIN. Bread for All is the Development Service of the Protestant Churches in Switzerland. ASO is a London-based registered charity that seeks to support the rights of indigenous peoples in southwest Ethiopia. GRAIN is a small international nonprofit organization based in Barcelona, Spain that received the 2011 Right Livelihood Award at the Swedish Parliament for its “worldwide work to protect the livelihoods and rights of farming communities.”

The objective of the Nairobi workshop was to exchange “experience and information among different indigenous communities from Ethiopia and experts from international groups around food security challenges.” Participants from Ethiopia were selected by ASO based on their experience in supporting local communities to ensure their food security and access to land.

The charge sheet accuses Omot of being the co-founder and leader of the Gambella People’s Liberation Movement (GPLM) and communicating with its leaders abroad, including ASO Director Nyikaw Ochalla, who is described in the charge sheet as GPLM’s London-based “senior group terrorist leader.” Omot faces between 20 years and life in prison. Ashinie is accused of participating in the GPLM, including communicating with Nyikaw and preparing a research document entitled “Deforestation, dispossession and displacement of Gambela in general and Majang people in particular.” Jamal Oumar is accused of being a participant of a “terrorist group” and of organizing recruits to attend the Nairobi workshop.

The GPLM is not among the five organizations that the Ethiopian parliament has designated terrorist groups. GPLM is an ethnic Anuak organization that fought alongside the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to oust the repressive Derg regime in the 1990s. In 1998, GPLM was folded into the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) power structure. Currently the GPLM has no public profile, no known leadership structure, and has not made any public statement of its goals.

“For the government to make criminal allegations against me because I assisted in coordinating a workshop about land and food issues in Ethiopia is simply incredible,” said Nyikaw Ochalla, ASO executive director. “Trying to give indigenous people a voice about their most precious resources – their land and their food – is not terrorism, it’s a critical part of any sustainable development strategy.”

Within days of Omot’s arrest, Human Rights Watch and other organizations alerted the World Bank Group president, Jim Yong Kim, and the European Union, United States, and Swiss missions in Addis Ababa. But on March 31, the World Bank board approved a new US$350 million agriculture project in Ethiopia. On September 15, the World Bank approved a $600 million Enhancing Shared Prosperity through Equitable Services project, which is replacing one of the subprograms of the PBS program.

World Bank staff assert that they have privately raised the case with Ethiopian government officials, but the nature of any communications is unclear. In a May meeting with nongovernmental organizations in Washington, DC, World Bank staff said that the government had informed them that Omot’s arrest was in accordance with Ethiopian law and unrelated to the Bank’s accountability process.

The chair of the Inspection Panel has emphasized the Panel’s concern privately and, when it was informed of the interpreter’s arrest by Human Rights Watch, immediately informed senior Bank staff and asked for “their assistance to inquire about [the] arrest with the government and ensure his well-being and release.” On September 25, the Panel published a statement calling “on the Government of Ethiopia to ensure that Pastor Omot’s rights to due process and other protections under the rule of law are respected.”

All three detainees were moved to Kalinto prison, on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa, after spending more than five months in Maekelawi, the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector in the city. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented torture and other ill-treatment at Maekelawi. Omot, and possibly the other two detainees, were held in solitary confinement for three weeks upon their arrest, and all have had limited access to family members. Jamal and Omot have reportedly been in poor health.

The detainees were held 161 days without charge, well beyond the four months allowed under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, and a period in violation of international human rights standards and among the longest permitted by law in the world. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for August 4, 2016.

Since 2011, Ethiopia’s counterterrorism law has been used to prosecute journalists, bloggers, opposition politicians, and peaceful protesters. Many have been accused without compelling evidence of association with banned opposition groups.

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented numerous incidents in which individuals critical of Ethiopia’s development programs have been detained and harassed, and often mistreated in detention. Journalists have been harassed for writing articles critical of the country’s development policy.

Ethiopian authorities should immediately drop all charges and release Omot and the two other local activists charged with him under Ethiopia’s repressive counterterrorism law. The World Bank should vigorously respond to this reprisal against Omot Agwa, by – at a minimum – publicly denouncing his arrest and pushing the government to drop the charges and release him.

For more information, see: Human Rights Watch, “Dispatches: Ethiopian Pastor Pays the Penalty for Speaking Out” and “Ethiopia: World Bank Translator, Activists Face Trial.”